So you want to go places?
We do, too!
We have big plans at Buffer to build a social media tool that is as ubiquitous for social marketers as Google Analytics is to website owners. It’s a big, hairy, audacious goal, right? How do we even begin to work toward something like that?
We also have big marketing plans to ship major projects (courses!), explore new channels (Snapchat!), and not spend all day in Slack (single-tasking!). It’s tough to stay on track. How do we prioritize when every goal is so exciting and, well, so big?
Sound familiar? Imagine having a way to reach the goals you set (no matter how large), and stay on track all the way there.
Our solution these days is to focus on OKRs, a rigorous method of goal-setting and progress-tracking that we’ve found to have a great impact on our focus, excitement, and results. Read on to see exactly how OKRs work for us at Buffer, from how we chose them to how we track them.
An OK-What? A Brief History And Definition Of OKRs
OKRs stand for Objectives and Key Results. The Objectives tend to be the desired outcomes that you want, and the Key Results are the measurable ways you know you’re on track to reach them.
Put another way …
- An Objective helps answer the question, “Where do I want to go?”
- A Key Result helps answer, “How will I know I’m getting there?”
Here’s what OKRs look like in practice:
OKRs arrived at Google in 1999 when VC John Doerr introduced them to Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They’ve been used at Google ever since - and it seems Google has done quite well with growth since the 90s. Talk about social proof!
For a look at how the company implements their OKR processes, Rick Klau of Google Ventures Startup Lab describes what OKRs look like (using San Francisco 49er references) and how Google thinks about setting and tracking them:
And Google is not the only big-name company that’s been using OKRs. Companies who have used OKRs successfully at one point or another, or still do to this day, include Twitter, Sears, LinkedIn, Oracle and Zynga.
3 Reasons Why We Do OKRs At Buffer
We’ve gone through lots of different work styles at Buffer, experimenting to find the way we all work best and happiest.
- Teal (based on the book Reinventing Organizations)
- No managers, very flat structure, almost Holacracy
- No goals
- Lots of goals
At the same time, we’ve grown quite fast. The team was 17 people when I joined two years ago. There are 82 of us now.
As we grew and as we dreamed, we felt that a system might be useful for helping us all stay on the same page with the big goals we wanted for the company. We’ve used OKRs to chart our path toward these goals, setting them in each quarter of 2016. Here’s what we’ve found most valuable:
OKRs Increase Clarity
One of the greatest benefits of OKRs is that they provide structure and clarity for an organization to work toward common goals. I love how the folks at weekdone describe it:
The main goal of OKRs is to connect company, team and personal objectives to measurable results, making people move together in right direction.
And when you get a team of dozens or hundreds all moving as one, you achieve some pretty incredible results!
I felt this clarity right away with our first quarter (January to March) OKRs at Buffer. I was working to create customer case studies, which is a great and fun task on its own, and which became all the more paramount with the perspective gained from OKRs. I could draw a line from my OKR of case studies all the way up to our company-wide OKR for revenue:
- Case studies lead to …
- middle-funnel, bottom-funnel traffic, which leads to …
- higher conversion rates, which lead to … (a marketing-wide OKR)
- more trial starts, which means ....
- An increase in monthly recurring revenue, or MRR (a company-wide OKR)
OKRs Increase Focus
Among the best practices for OKRs is to revisit them regularly - ideally every week. I have even found myself revisiting them daily.
Whenever I was faced with a new task or felt myself drifting with my work, I would stop and ask:
“Does this get me closer to meeting my goals?”
Then sure enough I’d pull out my OKR Trello board (more on that below) and check to see where my current tasks fit within my stated goals. If things were in line, I could get back to work and feel confident that I was moving in the right direction. If there was conflict, I would have a built-in excuse for moving on to other tasks.
OKRs Increase Collaboration
This is probably a good lesson to learn early (thank you, OKRs!) - I can’t do everything alone.
Many of my personal OKRs relied on the involvement of my teammates. I couldn’t set a new landing page live because I don’t have front-end development skills. I couldn’t create three to five new infographics because I can’t design one.
We noticed these arrangements were common across the board at Buffer, so we made sure to include a period of negotiations before finalizing any OKRs. You’d simply get in touch with the people you’d need to work with on these projects and find a common ground with them so that the work ended up on each person’s OKR list.
How We Do OKRs For Marketing At Buffer
We have many different layers of OKRs at Buffer. There are company-wide OKRs that are set by Joel and Leo, our co-founders. Then there are OKRs for each area of Buffer - Marketing, Product, Happiness, Engineering, Data, Systems, Community, Customer Development, People, Ops, etc. Beyond those, each individual on each team has their own OKRs. It looks a bit like this diagram from BetterWorks:
A couple weeks before the start of a new quarter, we’ll all take time to reflect on what we want to achieve in the coming months. Joel and Leo will help set the company-wide OKRs, then we’ll work together as a marketing team to negotiate what OKRs might look like in our area.
Here is a quick list of some of our top tips for setting OKRs at Buffer:
- Objectives are to be ambitious and should feel slightly uncomfortable.
- Key results are measurable; they must have a number.
- Ideally, you’ll only achieve 70% of your OKRs.
- Getting 100% means your OKRs aren’t ambitious enough.
- Low grades aren’t to be punished.
- Be careful not to set too many. Generally, a maximum of five objectives with a max of five key results each is enough.
And probably our biggest learning with OKRs: They can (and should) change during the quarter. Especially at a SaaS startup, things happen fast, we learn fast, and the objectives we set may not be the right ones in a few weeks’ time.
Our marketing OKRs for quarter two (April through June) included five different objectives that we were excited to take on, each with three to five key results attached. Here’s one OKR for what we hoped to do on Medium last quarter:
(You can see the full OKR list here.)
Setting them is really fun. It is a chance to dream big, reflect on where you’re at and where you want to go, and brainstorm how to get there.
Also quite fun? Tracking them! I’ve found a lot of joy in of the system we use for our marketing OKRs.
How To Track OKRs In Trello
^ our Buffer marketing OKRs
At Buffer, we have the freedom to track our OKRs however we feel best. There are some great tools out there for robust OKR tracking. I found everything I needed in a Trello board. Here’s how I put together the board for Buffer’s marketing OKRs:
The basic layout is organized like this:
- Each Objective is summarized in a list title
- Each Key Result gets its own card under its Objective list
- Each card has a rich description of the OKR details
- Labels show the status of the Key Result
One of my biggest goals with the Trello board was to make it a) useable, b) scannable, and c) pretty. Fortunately, all three wishes tied nicely together!
I knew I couldn’t fit a whole Objective into a list title. Something like, “When people think about companies that are some of the best on Medium, they should name Buffer as the #1 brand that comes to mind” just wouldn’t fit very neatly. So, I summarized. Each Trello list name is a high-level synopsis of the Objective, sometimes captured in as little as one or two words.
Similarly, each Key Result receives its own Trello card, with a highly-abbreviated description on the front:
Then within the card, I go into greater detail about the full Objective and Key Result:
I also use a very simple label system, showing how far along we are with each Key Result:
- Planning: “We haven’t started yet, but we sure are thinking about it lots!”
- In Progress: “Currently working on it!” (This is our most-used label.)
- Done: “Success!”
- Done (for now): A nice way of saying, “we didn’t quite reach this one … but we might someday.”
All of our color-coded Key Result status labels.
One of the best ways we’ve found to track progress on Key Results is to use checklists. These make great sense for the results we’ve set to “achieve x number of things” like blog posts, experiments, and the like.
Here’s one for the result “Run 8 experiments to grow traffic towards the social blog”:
For those results that are not so easy to turn into to-do lists, we have a bit of a different tracking setup. The checklist becomes a series of mile markers throughout the quarter, helping us stay accountable for checking in regularly and updating the card with the latest stats or activity:
We’ve set a number of target goals for the quarter, things like “grow sessions to our new posts by 30% in the first 28 days” or “get to 150,000 sessions per month on the Open blog.”
These goals are exciting to stretch for! And one thing I’m keen to ensure is that we’re not in a place where we set the OKR in April and don’t realize until late June that we’re not even in the ballpark.
What we’ve found works well here is a waterfall chart. You can see them attached to a number of cards on our board:
A waterfall chart is a pair of line graphs, one showing where you are when you set your goal and where you want to be at the end of the goal period, and the other line showing your progress throughout the period.
We’ve adopted ours from a guide by HubSpot’s Mike Volpe. The basics work like this:
- Set a goal, based on a time period;
- Determine how much daily progress you need to make in order to reach the goal;
- Chart this progress on a line graph;
- Track your daily progress; and,
- Add this progress to the line graph, too.
It’s as simple (and complicated) as that. Here’s a template that we use.
The variations we’ve added to the chart came from a realization we made in quarter one. The idea of OKRs is to set aggressive, ambitious goals to hit, with the understanding that you’re expected to reach only 70 percent of your OKRs in a quarter. So we added this element into our waterfalls, which now include three different growth lines:
- 70% - On track
- 85% - Wow, going great
- 100% - Home run! Fireworks! Party rock!
So here’s what a chart of ours looked like early in the quarter:
And how do we add it into Trello?
Simple (and hacky): I take a screenshot of the chart in Google Sheets, and I add it to the Trello card, making sure that the latest chart is the cover of the card.
Now, It’s Up To You
If you’re looking for a way to jumpstart your productivity, your focus, and your results, we’ve found a goal-setting system like OKRs to be a real boost. There can be a lot to dig into with OKRs, though we’ve found that just these basics can be enough to get the ball rolling toward achieving great things:
- Set ambitious goals with measurable results.
- Place them into Trello.
- Check-in regularly to see your progress.
Then, when the quarter is up, celebrate!